The Archbishop of Canterbury last week made a plea to the MPs who will be debating the Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Commons tomorrow. Using a well-worn cliché, he said that, by legalising assisted dying, representatives would cross an ‘ethical and legal Rubicon’. When Caesar crossed the Rubicon it was a flash point in history which culminated with the destruction on the Roman republic. As Welby notes, the government doesn't prosecute people who help end the life of a relative when they've had enough suffering. To call the official decriminalisation of a law which is no longer enforced ‘crossing the Rubicon’ is disingenuous and ethical grandstanding at its very worst.
Moreover, Welby’s comparison with suicide doesn’t withstand ethical scrutiny. He states that suicide is a tragedy and, while we don't criminalize the act, we endeavour to prevent it. In this sense, the Archbishop is correct. Suicide is viewed rightly as a tragedy, and groups like the Samaritans dedicate their efforts to counteracting its causes. However, Welby argues that approving the Assisted Dying Bill would be tantamount to actively supporting suicide. If Welby has read the Bill, he will realise that it only applies to people with six or less months to live, with a terminal illness and no hope of recovery, who are of sound mind and over the age of 18. Assistant dying is not equivalent to suicide, although the distinction is subtle. We will all face death at some point and, as Edgar Allan Poe once wrote, "The boundaries which divide Life from Death are at best shadowy and vague. Who shall say where the one ends, and where the other begins?" If someone on the verge of death with no chance of recovery wants to die with dignity, who are we to say that they should be denied this right?
Mr Welby's concerns are misplaced. By legalising assisted dying, MPs would merely enshrine the already commonly-held belief that sufferers and their families should avoid stigma and prosecution if the ailed wishes to die. Of course, Welby’s religious ethics regarding the sanctity of life are understandable. However, he should have the courtesy to state that belief. The Archbishop’s ill-conceived conflation of suicide with assisted dying is intellectually dishonest and morally repugnant. Welby calls for compassion, care and love towards those who suffer from terminal illnesses, but neglects the fact that assisted suicide is not only moral but in a great many cases a compassionate, caring, and loving thing to do.